"Your old man is sure kicking your ass lately," he muttered. "That's the first time since the Archers that he's actually talked to you like a human being."
"He was angry." Zeke shrugged half heartedly. "I endangered the entire group. If anything had happened, it would've been my fault."
"You can't blame yourself, Zeke. We all saw her, talked to her. She had us all fooled."
My gut twisted and I narrowed my eyes, zeroing in on the conversation. The sound of the wind and creaking branches faded away as I concentrated solely on the boys in front of me. I heard Zeke's sigh, imagined him stabbing his fingers through his hair.
"I should've seen it," he muttered, dark loathing rolling off his voice. "There were so many signs, so many little things, now that I think about it. I just didn't put it together. I never thought...she could be a vampire." Zeke suddenly kicked a chunk of pavement, sending it crashing into the bushes. "God, Dare," he muttered through clenched teeth, "what if she bit someone? Like Caleb. What if she had been feeding on those kids the whole time? If she had killed someone, if anything happened to them...because I was..." He trailed off, nearly choking on disgust, before murmuring, "I could never forgive myself."
I felt cold and clenched my fists to stif le the anger rising up like a storm. Zeke should know me better, he should know I would have never...
I stopped, uncurling my hands. No, he shouldn't. Why should he? I was a vampire, and those kids were the easiest form of prey. In his position, I would think the same.
Still, it hurt. To hear, again, what they really thought of me: a monster who preyed indiscriminately on the smallest and weakest. It hurt a lot more than I'd thought it would.
I had struggled hard not to feed on any of them, especially Caleb and Bethany, and it was all for nothing.
But then, I had also sacrificed someone else, a stranger, in order not to feed on those I knew. So, maybe their fears were justified.
"Zeke." Darren's voice came again, hesitant, as if he feared people were listening. "You know I have no reason to doubt you. If you say she was a vampire, then I believe it. But...but she didn't seem...that bad to me, you know?" He paused, as if shocked that he could have voiced such a thing, but continued. "I mean, I know what Jeb's told us. I know he says they're demons and there's nothing human about them, but...
I've never seen one before Allison. What if we're wrong?"
"Stop it." Zeke's voice sent ice into my stomach. It was hard, dangerous, the same tone he'd used when facing down a vampire that night in the rain. "If Jeb heard you say that he'd kick you out before you could blink. If we start questioning everything we know, we're lost, and I am not going to start doubting now. She was a vampire, and that was all I needed to know. I'm not going to put everyone in danger just because you became somewhat attached."
Look who's talking, I thought, just as Darren muttered the exact same thing. Zeke scowled at him. "What?"
"Look who's talking," Darren repeated, angrier this time.
"I might've welcomed her along in hunts, but I wasn't tripping over myself to talk to her every night. Everyone could see the way you looked at the girl. You weren't exactly subtle, you know. Ruth nearly had kittens every time the two of you went off to do something. So don't lecture me about getting attached, Zeke. You were falling for that vampire-
we all knew it. Maybe you'd better check your own neck before you go pointing fingers at other people. Seems to me the vampire could've bitten you anytime she wanted-" Zeke turned and punched Darren in the jaw, sending him sprawling to the pavement. I froze in shock. Darren staggered upright, wiping his mouth, and tackled Zeke with a yell, knocking them both down. Shouts and cries rose from the group as the two boys struggled and kicked, fists f lying, in the middle of the road. Darren was older and slightly taller than Zeke, but Zeke had been trained to fight and managed to straddle Darren's chest, pounding his face. The smell of blood trickled through the air.
It was over in seconds, though the actual fight seemed much longer. Jake and Silas descended on the boys, prying them apart, and the two fighters glared at each other, panting and wiping at their mouths. Blood streamed from Darren's nose, and Zeke's lip had been split open, dripping red onto the pavement. They didn't struggle against their captors, though both seemed ready to f ly at the other once more if they were released.
"What is the meaning of this?"
You had to give Jeb props. He didn't shout or even raise his voice, but the tension between the two boys diffused instantly. Jeb waved the men aside and stood between the former combatants, looking grim. I watched their faces closely.
Darren looked pale and terrified, but the expression on Zeke's face was one of shame.
"Disappointing, Ezekiel." Jeb's tone couldn't be any f latter if he'd dropped it from a thirty-story building, but Zeke winced as if he'd been given a death sentence.
"I'm sorry, sir."
"It is not me you should apologize to." Jeb eyed them both with his steely gaze, then stepped back. "I do not know the cause of your fight, nor do I care. But we do not raise our hands in anger to anyone in this community-you both know that."
"Yes, sir," both Zeke and Darren muttered.
"Since both of you have energy enough to fight, tonight you will give your rations to someone who is in better need of them than you."
"Jake," Jeb called, motioning the older man forward. "Take up the rear guard with Darren. Zeke-" he turned to Zeke, who f linched ever so slightly "-you will join me up front." Zeke and Darren exchanged a glance, then Zeke turned away, following Jebbadiah to the head of the group. But I saw the unspoken apology f lash between them and suddenly realized that Darren was afraid, not for himself, but for Zeke.
I found out why several hours later, when we stumbled upon the small town Larry had been talking about. It had the same empty, desiccated feel of most dead communities: cracked streets, rusting cars, structures falling apart and overgrown with weeds. A herd of deer scattered through a parking lot, leaping over vehicles and rusty carts. Darren watched them bound away with a hungry, regretful look on his face, but Zeke, walking stiff ly beside Jebbadiah, didn't even glance up.
I followed them through the town, hugging buildings and easing around cars, until they came to a small building on the corner of the street. At one point, it had been white, with a sharp black steeple and windows of colored glass. Now the siding was peeling off, showing rotten boards underneath, and the windows had been smashed into tiny razor fragments that glinted in the moonlight. A wooden cross balanced precariously atop the roof, leaning forward as if it might topple at any moment.
This must be a church. I hadn't actually ever seen one standing; the vampires had razed all the ones they could find.
No wonder the group would be attracted to this building; it probably gave them a sense of security. Jebbadiah escorted them in, pushing through the rotting door, and I looked around for a place to hole up, too.
The statue of an angel, broken and corroding away, poked out of the weeds at the edge of the lot next to the church.
Curious, I examined it and found several chipped, broken gravestones buried under the long grass.
This must be a graveyard or a cemetery. I'd heard of them before in New Covington, places where families used to bury their dead. In New Covington, bodies were usually burned to prevent the spread of disease. This place, like the church itself, was a relic of another time.
Dawn was about an hour away. Crouching, I was about to burrow into the cool, rich earth that lay beneath the grass and weeds when approaching footsteps made me look up.
Zeke's bright, tall form cut through the grass several yards away, followed by Jebbadiah, close on his heels. I froze, becoming vampire-still, as motionless as the gravestones around me. They passed very close, close enough for me to see Zeke's cross, glimmering on his chest, and the smooth white scar tissue on Jebbadiah's face. Zeke walked stiff ly in front of the older man, staring straight ahead, like a prisoner on his way to the gallows.
"Stop," Jeb said quietly, and Zeke stopped. The older man held something long and metallic, tapping it against his leg.
A car antenna.
"Let's get on with it, Ezekiel," he murmured.
I f licked my gaze to Zeke, who stood motionless for a heartbeat, his hands clenched at his sides. Then, slowly, me-thodically, he turned and removed his shirt, tossing it to the ground. I bit the inside of my cheek. His skin was a map of old, pale scars, crisscrossing his back and shoulders. Turning stiff ly, he placed his palms against one of the gravestones poking out of the grass and bowed his head. I saw his shoulders tremble, once, but his face remained impassive.
"You know why I do this," Jeb said softly, moving up behind him.
"Yes," Zeke muttered. His knuckles were white from gripping the headstone.
Don't move, I told myself, closing my fists in the dirt. Do not move. Do not go out there to help him. Stay where you are.
"You are a leader," Jebbadiah continued and, without warning, struck Zeke's exposed back with the strip of metal. I cringed, fighting the impulse to snarl, as Zeke tightened his jaw. Blood, bright and vivid, seeped crimson down his scarred back.
"I expect more of you," Jebbadiah continued in that same calm, unruff led voice, striking him again, this time across the shoulders. Zeke bowed his head, panting. "If I fall, you must lead them in my place." Two more vicious blows in rapid succession. "You must not be weak. You must not succumb to emotion or the desires of the f lesh. If you are to become a true leader, you must kill everything that tempts you, everything that makes you question your morals or your faith.
If we are to survive this world, if we are to save the human race, we must be ruthlessly diligent. If we fall, the sacrifices of those before us will be for nothing. Do you understand, Ezekiel?"
The last question was delivered with such a vicious blow that Zeke finally gasped and buckled against the headstone. I crouched in the grass, shaking with fury, my fangs fully extended, fighting the urge to leap out and rip Jebbadiah open from sternum to groin.
Jeb stepped back, his face smooth and blank once more.
"Do you understand?" he asked again in a quiet voice.
"Yes," Zeke answered in a surprisingly steady voice as he pulled himself up. His back was a mess of blood, angry slashes over his already numerous scars. "I understand. I'm sorry, sir." The older man tossed the antenna into the weeds. "Have you apologized to Darren yet?" he asked, and when Zeke nodded, he stepped up and grasped his shoulder. Zeke f linched.
"Come, then. Let's get you cleaned up before the blood attracts anything dangerous."
I sank my fingers into the dirt, watching Zeke stoop slowly, painfully, to retrieve his shirt and follow Jebbadiah out of the cemetery. My muscles ached from holding myself back. The scent of blood, the violence, the furious rage toward Jebbadiah, was almost too much to handle. I watched Zeke stumble, wincing as he braced himself against a headstone, and a low growl slipped out before I could stop it.
Zeke straightened, glancing back toward the cemetery, a wary frown crossing his face. I bit my tongue, cursing myself, and thought motionless thoughts. I was a tree, a stone, a part of the landscape and the night. Zeke's gaze swept through the cemetery, peering into the shadows. At one point, he looked right at me, our eyes meeting through the darkness, but then his slid away and continued on without recognition.